One of the great mariners of history, the Italian sailor, navigator and explorer extraordinaire Christopher Columbus was born in 1451 in Genoa, Italy.
He began his maritime career as a teenager, sailing on trading vessels around the Mediterranean Sea, and later the Atlantic Ocean. As trade with Asia was becoming increasingly important Columbus gradually came to believe that sailing west from the European ports, rather than east, could result in much improved trade routes for merchant vessels. But no accurate global maps existed at the time so there was some opposition to his ideas.
But there were real physical advantages in sailing west that Columbus was familiar with. The trade winds than blew from the northeast in the northern hemisphere would carry sailing vessels quickly and reliably to the west. And then by tacking north, westerly winds would be picked up at higher latitudes to assist in the trip home.
He decided on a series of voyages of discovery to test his theories and after several years of lobbying the Spanish monarchy of Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand, he received finance for four separate expeditions. The first of these set sail in August 1492.
The results were far reaching – in his voyages he reached the Bahamas and Antilles archipelagos, and perhaps most significantly – the coasts of Venezuela and Central America. These visits to the area led eventually to increased and lasting contact between Europe and the Americas resulting in trade and colonization that lasted down the centuries and changed the course of history.
Not always acclaimed, Columbus was connected with the slave trade involving indigenous peoples from his newly discovered territories. He justified this by stating his aim to extend Christianity among the unbelievers.
And despite his tremendous success on the high seas he later clashed with the Spanish crown and was actually arrested on one occasion and later stripped of his powers as Governor of the Indies.
However his position as one of the great mariners of history is unassailable. His four westward travelling expeditions were classic voyages of discovery that revolutionised human knowledge of the geography of the world and the prevailing winds and currents of the Atlantic Ocean.
He died in Spain on 20 May 1506.
Image: Portrait of a man believed to be Christopher Columbus by the Italian artist Sebastiano del Piombi painted in 1519, some 13 years after Columbus’s death. Source: Wikimedia Commons